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How much has Obama influenced public debate on Trayvon Martin? (+video)

President Obama, who for the most part has maintained painstaking caution on topics of race, waded early into the national dialogue on the killing of Trayvon Martin. His statement Sunday was more restrained.

By Correspondent / July 16, 2013

Protesters rally in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin trial in the Brooklyn Borough of New York, July 14. President Obama called for calm on Sunday after the acquittal of Zimmerman in the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, as thousands of civil rights demonstrators turned out at rallies to condemn racial profiling.

Keith Bedford/Reuters

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As Americans digest the outcome of the Trayvon Martin murder case – a “not guilty” verdict for shooter George Zimmerman – some are also looking back to the role that President Obama’s early remarks played in shaping public sentiment about the event.

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Mr. Obama, who for the most part has maintained painstaking caution on topics of race, waded early and with conviction into the national dialogue on the killing.

“When I think about this boy,” he told reporters in the White House Rose Garden after the crime was committed but before Mr. Zimmerman was charged, “I think about my own kids.” If he had a son, Obama said, he would look like Trayvon.

But now, in the wake of a jury decision that has generated rage in some corners and relief in others, the president has dialed back his language, urging calm reflection of how we can all do more to facilitate dialogue on these complicated issues – to “widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities,” as he said in a statement released Sunday.

“I know this case has elicited strong passions,” Obama said in his paragraph-long comment. “And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken.” The only mention of something policy-oriented was his plea to “ask ourselves if we are doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis.”

For this tonal pivot – politically necessary, some say, even responsible – he is garnering some criticism, from conservatives especially. They say that he shouldn’t have engaged in the issue from the get-go, that he elevated tensions and turned a local legal matter into a divisive national debate.

"President Obama politicized this at the beginning of it, I believe, unfortunately, by injecting himself into it," said Karl Rove, former political adviser to President George W. Bush.

Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican, struck a similar theme, saying the president turned the Florida killing "into a political issue." Rove and King both spoke on “Fox News Sunday.”

Of course the same could be said of the president’s critics. Who can claim with validity that Obama was really a key driver of the gavel-to-gavel coverage of this trial?

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